GREEN BAY – When Reggie Gilbert ran out of the Lambeau Field tunnel on Saturday night, it was the culmination of more than a year of hard work, transition and belief the former University of Arizona standout could make it in the NFL.
A day earlier, Head Coach Mike McCarthy was the one to tell the Packers’ first-year linebacker he was being called up to the active roster after Gilbert spent nearly two full seasons on the team’s practice squad.
This wasn’t just a ceremonial promotion, either. The Packers likely were going to be counting on Gilbert with Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Nick Perry (shoulder/foot) eventually ruled out with injuries.
In the end, Gilbert wound up playing more than anyone, including himself, would have imagined in contributing two quarterback hits and several more pressures during the 16-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
“I was trying to go out there and do my job,” Gilbert said. “That’s part of our job description as outside linebackers is try to get to the quarterback. I was trying to help the defense as much as I could.”
Gilbert’s journey to Green Bay hasn’t been an easy one. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker originally was a 4-3 defensive end at Arizona before signing on to make a position switch with the Packers as a college free agent in 2016.
Gilbert put together two strong camps in totaling 14 tackles and 3½ sacks over eight preseason games, but he was a part of the Packers’ final cuts both years. He had a chance to try his luck elsewhere after getting cut in September, but decided to stay in Green Bay after talking with his agent.
He finally was rewarded for his loyalty and dedication this weekend and wasted no time making an impact. He hit Vikings quarterback Case Keenum twice on third downs in the second half, forcing punts on both drives.
“He has great technique. He takes everything serious,” said Kenny Clark, whose first sack Sunday came with Gilbert applying pressure from the opposite side. “He’s another guy who put in the work. He’s always in the weight room doing what he’s supposed to do, staying after. I’m just happy they brought him up and gave him a shot to come out there and play.”
While the Packers already were eliminated from the playoffs prior to Saturday’s game, Gilbert knows these final games are critical for his development. It also led to a special moment between him and his mother, the first person he called after discovering he’d been activated.
“I’ve been talking to her through this whole process,” Gilbert said. “She was really happy for me. It was like an early Christmas present for her.”
First impression:** Gilbert wasn’t the only former practice-squad player to come up big for the Packers. Former St. Joseph’s (Pa.) basketball player Michael Clark made his NFL debut against the Vikings, catching three passes for 36 yards in the fourth quarter.
Playing without Davante Adams (concussion) and Jordy Nelson (shoulder), Packers quarterback Brett Hundley looked to Clark on back-to-back plays at the start of the fourth quarter. Clark’s diving 19-yard catch with 12:12 left was the Packers’ longest pass play of the day.
“It’s really just a reaction. We rep it in practice,” said Clark, who played football for one season at Marshall before declaring for the NFL Draft last spring. “This is why I work. I knew I was going to get called. Just being patient and don’t make excuses, and take advantage of the opportunity when it came.”
On the move: Justin McCray spent all week taking reps at right guard in case veteran Jahri Evans wasn’t able to play through the knee injury he sustained last Sunday against Carolina.
While McCray ultimately started at right guard, the first-year offensive lineman was moved over to right tackle after Jason Spriggs sustained a knee injury on the first offensive snap and immediately was ruled out.
Despite the change, the offensive line held its own against the Vikings’ formidable front. Hundley was sacked only once, while the Packers rushed for 113 yards on 24 carries.
“It’s a little difficult playing one position the whole week, getting first ready to play inside and then shuffle back outside,” said McCray, who has now played at both tackle and both guard spots this season. “It’s something they’ve been asking me to do all year and it keeps me on the field. So I’m happy they trust me to be versatile like that.”
In the club:** With McCray moving to right tackle, reserve guard Lucas Patrick was summoned to fill in at right guard despite playing with a club on his right hand.
Patrick injured his hand last month against Baltimore and has been playing with the club ever since. However, Saturday was the first time he actually had to take in-game reps with the device.
“You just get it done,” said Patrick, who also played with a club during his first training camp with Green Bay in 2016. “That’s kind of player I am. You find a way to make it work. You have to focus on your feet a lot because if you’re wrong with your feet, sometimes you can recover with your hands. It’s making me focus on my feet a lot more.”
In addition to Spriggs and Nelson, the Packers finished the game without running back Aaron Jones (knee) and tight end Richard Rodgers (shoulder).
Hanging in there: With Damarious Randall out with a knee injury, the Packers leaned heavily on the experience of Davon House to navigate Saturday’s game.
House, who was listed as questionable, sat out last week’s game with back and shoulder injuries, but told reporters afterward there was no way he wasn’t going to play in the last game of the season at Lambeau Field.
The 6-foot, 195-pound cornerback played a role in containing Keenum to 139 passing yards and limiting Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen to two catches for 24 yards. House’s decision to play goes all the way back to the offseason program when he hitched a ride back to Green Bay after his flight was canceled.
“Last year during this time, I was wishing I could be back here,” House said. “I think back about when I came for the OTAs. I didn’t have to come. I didn’t have to come to practice. I could have stayed the night in Minnesota and came up the next day and missed practice, but it’s more than just that for me.
“Like Ha Ha said, this is my job and I take it serious. If I can go out there and play, I’m going to play. This might have been my last game in Lambeau and I’m glad I did play.”
The Packers also turned to undrafted rookie Lenzy Pipkins to contribute during moments when House needed to get some rest on the sideline. Pipkins had two tackles and came close to a pick on an overthrown pass in the second half.
“Whenever I got banged up or anything or any part of my body was hurting, ‘Pip’ was ready to roll,” House said. “Hats off to ‘Pip.’ He’s been itching to come in here since the last time we played Minnesota. He got his shot and he was ready.”
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